Shuck and Jive

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Post #9: Cosmology and Faith on CWB

Bob Campbell and I are having a friendly discussion regarding theology. I will let Bob speak for himself, but I represent a progressive form of Christianity. If you are curious about what "progressive" means you can go to The Center for Progressive Christianity and browse the site. You might be interested in Fred Plumer's essay, "What Is Progressive Christianity Anyway?" There are a growing number of Christians and Christian communities that call themselves progressive or have sympathies with that understanding of faith.

One of the key elements of a progressive theology is the attempt to communicate the meaning of pre-modern Christian symbols in our twenty-first century context. I don't claim to speak for all progressives, or any, but myself as a progressive. I say that so you don't get turned off by progressive Christianity just because of my fumbling!

I write all of this as a way of introducing this post.


I agree wholeheartedly with your two summary points:

  1. The Biblical writers did not intend to tell us about the origins of the universe but rather to make claims about God as over against the gods of the surrounding cultures and about the relationship between God and humans.
  2. Scientific theories are always temporary and will change, either by evolution of the theory (as has happened so far with the theory of evolution) or replacement of the theory by a new theory that better explains the data (as with Einstein’s theory did with Newtonian physics in relation to movement of objects in the solar system).
You are also correct that neither of us are scientists and that science by its nature is constantly changing. However, I don't think we need to be scientists to recognize the need for revising our theology.

I just returned from a hike on Grassy Ridge, one of the most beautiful areas on the Appalachian Trail. Since you are in Pennsylvania, I need to let you know the proper pronunciation of Appalachia.

To the serpent,
said Eve,
"You shall not deceive!
Or I'll throw an apple at ya!

We saw rock formations that are some of the oldest on Earth. My friend, Gary, pointed out to me strips in the rock formed by magma millions of years old. On our way home, we stopped at the Roan Mountain State Park visitor center. The museum is a history of Roan Mountain--that is a geological history. A history of Earth spanning hundreds of millions of years.

Similarly, I am excited about the new Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee that will open later this summer. Among other finds, include fossils of the rhino Teleoceras and the short-faced bear Plionarctos, between 4.5 and 7 million years old. I have no idea how many teachers take their elementary classes to the museum on Roan Mountain and how many will visit the Gray Fossil Site. I hope many.

When I chaperoned my daughter's fifth grade class (she is now a college graduate) to Syracuse to visit the planetarium, the fifth graders experienced modern cosmology. My point is that we don't have to be scientists. Elementary students know the age of Earth and can begin to fathom the vastness of the Universe.

We agree on that.

Where we may not agree is the importance that this change (in what basically everyone knows just by living in 2007) means for theology. You and I agree on this but just to spell it out for others, when the Hebrews wrote their accounts of Genesis, they conceived of the Universe like this:

A flat Earth, when heaven (sky) above where all the stars and sun and moon moved around. The sun moved from east to west each day (apparently scooted underneath Earth) and "rose again" from the East. The moon lit the place by night. The firmament or the dome kept out the waters from above and below. The writers of the New Testament probably had something this in mind. Jesus, himself, likely thought the cosmos (world) was like this. This was the cosmology of all the people, whether Hebrew, Babylonian, Egyptian, whatever.

It was the flood story that clicked a light for me. The waters from above the firmament and below Earth poured into the upside-down bowl and filled it up! When the waters subsided, Noah and his crew landed on the highest mountain! Now the story makes sense.

I didn't learn this as a child. I certainly didn't learn it in church! I didn't learn this until my Introduction to Old Testament class in seminary! Hopefully, folks are learning this earlier than that today.

I am confident you are with me so far. I am not making fun of the writers of the Bible. You are right to say that we shouldn't force our cosmology on them. I agree 100%. We need to understand their cosmology so we can understand how their stories and claims operated within that cosmology.

The sky/heaven is the abode of the gods, regardless of religion. Jesus ascends up to the sky to sit at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.

Now, the scandal of Christianity as I see it. This is my response to your point 2:

"The Biblical writers did not intend to tell us about the origins of the universe but rather to make claims about God as over against the gods of the surrounding cultures and about the relationship between God and humans."

I agree completely. You said it perfectly. Who is your God? That was a burning question then and it still is today. Here is my attempt at understanding first-century Christian theology and the scandal of Jesus, Paul, and the gospels.

Now, I am not sure how much you will resonate with this. But I have to give it a shot!

Who was the god making claims to divinity in the time of Jesus? None other than Caesar. Augustus was depicted on everything from coins to statues to temples as the deified Lord--that is what Caesar means. He was depicted in artwork sitting at the right hand of Jupiter (Roman) or Zeus (Greek) with his conquered enemies at his feet. Caesar was the son of God.

All of the terms that we commonly throw around in church such as lord, savior, son of god, peace, are all words that were attributed to the various Caesars, especially Augustus who was the Lord who brought salvation to the people by bringing peace through conquest to all of Rome. He is the Divine son. Praise Caesar!

The Hebrews said, "Huh, uh. That won't do. We know who the Lord is, and it isn't you." And yet, Caesar was powerful. The Hebrews waited and wondered when YHWH would bring in a new era of peace and justice on Earth. They knew that YHWH was the Lord God of Israel. But they disagreed on how YHWH would do it. Some thought it was by capitulating to Rome. Some thought it was by violently resisting Rome.

Along comes Jesus. He preaches non-violence. He preaches about love of enemy. He preaches that all are welcome at the banquet. He preaches about food and justice and liberation for the poor and the enslaved (those who suffer most under Caesar's rule). He doesn't sound like Caesar at all. Resistance through love? Peace through justice? That is not what a god does!

To prove it, he is crucified by Caesar as thousands of others were. "We have no king but Caesar!" sings the chorus from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Along comes Paul. He claims that the one crucified has been raised and is at the right hand of God! He and 500 others and the Peter and the Twelve have witnessed and experienced the Risen Christ! God's new day has begun! They decide to build communities to live this new reality and to live the vision of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.

"As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Gal. 3:28

The Gospels declare that Jesus is Son of God, not Caesar. From virgin birth stories, to miracle stories, to resurrection and ascension stories, they dare to ask: "Who is in control? What is the character of God? Who is the revelation of God? Caesar or Jesus? Who is your God? To which God will you be a slave?"

The miracle or the scandal of the faith is not that Jesus rose from the dead or ascended to heaven. Gods and divine men did that all the time. They were elevated or promoted to that status because of their great deeds. Those great deeds had to do with conquest. The scandal of the Gospel in Roman imperial society that was saturated with Roman imperial theology is that Jesus, the nobody who was on the side of the most oppressed by Rome, was elevated and promoted to the right hand of the true God, the God of peace through justice for all people. And this new era of peace, of God's peace, will be fulfilled soon. Will you participate in its fulfillment? Or will you participate in the way of Caesar?

How do we translate the meaning of resurrection and ascension into our time?

My central thesis is this:

We miss the scandal and the meaning of the gospel because we put our 21st century cosmology onto the biblical narratives. Therefore, we focus on symbols as miraculous events and miss the true importance of the message. When we read the gospels in their context, including their cosmological context, we at least can hear the message. But it is up to us to follow it.

Thanks, Bob!
I look forward to your response!

In Christ,

1 comment:

  1. John,
    I agree 99% with what you've said and love this thoughtful, caring conversation you're having with Bob. This is exactly the kind of dialogue that HAS to happen within the PC(USA) if we're going to make it as a denomination.

    I have a teeeeeeeeeensy tiiiiiiiiny little objection to the way you characterized the reaction of the Roman government to Jesus and Christianity.

    I've been a bit of a lay scholar of ancient Rome ever since my high school Latin classes (I love "I, Claudius" and I recommend Derek Jacobi's stellar performance in the title role to anyone). While Josephus may have a slightly better perspective on the mood of Greater Judaea, Suetonius chronicles in The Twelve Caesars that until Nero (who desperately needed a scapegoat), Christianity was tolerated in the Roman Empire as just another crazy cult. Cults were in fact very fashionable, and being a member of the cult of the Phrygian (modern Turkey) goddess Cybele was a particular status symbol. Rome was always embracing cults or even absorbing them into the state theology. Paul's speech to an unknown god on the Areopagus in Athens is a good illustration of this.

    Palestine in the first century was a territory under occupation, and the natives rightly felt oppressed. It is entirely possible that there was some resentment toward the patronizing attitude that the Romans had toward Judaism (and indeed some echoes of the Hellenization detailed in the Maccabees), but until the Great Revolt (about 30 years after Jesus died), the Romans didn't care as long as the colony was in order and taxes were paid.

    Nevertheless, Jesus' message of the coming of the Kingdom of God had a powerful political component (as evidenced by the events of Palm Sunday, which our pastoral intern calls one of the world's first protest marches) to the Jewish audience. I think that the Romans eventually saw Jesus as a troublemaker by getting the Sanhedrin's panties in a wad (guess how I answered your poll) and had no objections to their request that Jesus be executed. Pilate's act of placing the "INRI" ("Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") was an expression of his apathy toward Jewish theology--he couldn't care less. Pilate's job was to maintain order, and if it took executing innocent, yet controversial Jews, he didn't lose any sleep over it.

    In other words, until Nero, the Romans didn't view Christianity as anything particularly revolutionary. It was just another cult. It was when Nero started making trumped-up terrorism charges against Christians in Rome that things got ugly.